AUGUST 12, 2022

Can We Stop Normalizing Bad Behavior?

In our work helping organizations become more equitable, we’re seeing a major disconnect grow between executive leadership and junior staff, particularly People of Color.

More and more often, we’re seeing people in middle management display bad behavior and get rewarded for it. Let me give you an example.

An organization we work with had a project deadline coming up, and the whole team was under pressure. The grant writer (a Woman of Color) sent a draft to her manager, who told her it was “elementary writing on every level,” and even marked it up in a red pen as if it were high school English class!

This mid-level manager went to executive leadership saying he wasn’t sure if the grant writer was a fit for the team, the project, or even the organization. Rather than work with her constructively, he simply told the execs that “She doesn’t know what she’s doing,” and “She’s putting the project at risk.”

The manager had the grant writer work over a holiday weekend to completely redo the proposal, only to end up using her original draft.

The proposal turned out to be a success, and executive leadership publicly praised the mid-level manager for “getting it done” with “limited resources.”

The junior employee, the Woman of Color, went unacknowledged and became demoralized.

Perspective is so important. Senior leaders see a manager meeting deadlines while “overcoming adversity.” The staff, particularly People of Color see the same manager as a bigoted tyrant.

Same person. Two viewpoints.

As the organization’s consultant, I informed executive leadership of this manager’s behavior and impact. They were stunned. “Tawana, in 10 years of working with him, this is the first we are hearing about this!”

Once the executives saw this pattern from the perspective of the junior staff, their eyes were opened.

They realized that similar bad behavior was so embedded in their company’s culture that when executives would say things like “moving the organization forward” or “getting results,” what junior staff heard was “we encourage hazing” and “bias is OK here.”

Executives, this is what I want you to hear: Driving people for “results” at the expense of their emotional health and self-value…essentially not having empathy…is damaging to individuals and your culture.

When People of Color don’t feel like they have the power to challenge you, even respectfully, we decide that speaking up puts us at risk of retaliation.

By the way, it’s not just White managers who can normalize bad behavior. I have seen this happen many times with Managers and Executives of Color, as well. When a devalued Person of Color becomes the manager, they may continue acting with the same bad behavior they learned from their managers. Why not? They’ve seen it be rewarded.

Let’s stop trying to “get it done” at the expense of people’s health and dignity, and take a hard look at the behaviors we have normalized in our organizations.

If you need help seeing your blind spots, let me know. I’d love to chat.